21 June 2009

Saving Private Ryan

[Originally written: 16 June 2009)]
Now: I've seen Saving Private Ryan before, I think maybe even in the theatre when it was a new film (1998). And in my memory, it was a good movie, brutal and horrifying, but still ultimately consolatory.

Now, after 7 years of graduate study, I have a very different response (though I still have a wild, fierce crush on Giovanni Ribisi in the movie - I swooned for him then, I swoon for him now).

First things first: Saving Pvt Ryan is a very, very well-made movie. Great acting, good casting. Intriguing characters (Jackson, the god-made, Scripture-quoting "instrument of warfare" sniper may be my favorite character). A reasonable premise - the 8-man squad sent out into german-infested, snarled France in search of Pvt Ryan, the youngest of four brothers, the other three of whom have been killed in action within a week of each other. Mission: Get Pvt Ryan home, alive, to his bereft mother.

Tom Hanks is fantastic, as he always is, and darling Giovanni Ribisi is also good. The whole crew of supporting soldiers are great.
Steven Spielberg knows how to make a movie - he knows how to set a shot and create tension and all that. There are some glorious visual moments in that film, including the horrific, nauseating first 24 minutes of Omaha Beach action, filmed primarily with a handheld, and correspondingly choppy, disorienting, terrifying. It creates, visually, a snippet of a sense of what that nightmare must have been like.

However. For all its good points, this is still a movie about War Is Hell. this is okay, because War IS, in fact, Hell. But at the end, we're left bereft, grieving and puzzled. Tom Hanks has died, holding the bridge...which is rescued by air power just when all hope is lost (the Americans have retreated to their "alamo," 5 of the 8 of our squad are dead, one of the eight has pissed his pants and sobbed in a paralysis of fear that causes one of his mates to be killed, Tom Hanks is on his way out). The deux ex machina of the planes comes a little too late for OUR heroes - Hanks & Co. Private Ryan (the perennially annoying matt damon) is saved, clutching at Hanks as he expires, his last words to Ryan: "Earn this. Earn this."

Six men die to save one man's life.

The movie narrativizes the question of what is one life worth, but I think it fucks up the answer. the final scene, of an old Ryan at the D-Day cemetery, at Hanks' grave, betrays the entire movie. He asks his wife to tell him he's been a good man, that he's led a good life. She says: "You are," puzzled, and walks away.

Surrounded by those endless lines of white, white crosses and markers topped by stars of david, old Pvt Ryan has lived while the rest have died, some FOR AND BECAUSE OF HIM. And the best he can come up with is; "tell me i'm a good man"?
and his wife can't even convincingly tell him that he is?

Edward Burns, looking dapper and dashing as a smartass from Brooklyn (no stereotypes here, no way!), is the wet blanket of the squad. From the get-go, he questions the mission. He asks someone to clarify the math - 8 men, risking their lives, for 1 guy? There's a serious moment when Hanks explains how he views losing men in his command: for every guy who dies, 2 or 3 or 10 or 100 are saved.

But the math for Private Ryan does NOT operate like that. Six men die. One is saved. The weakling translator, the one who pisses himself with fear and huddles on a staircase, draped in ammo (desperately needed by his squadmates) and holding a loaded rifle, while six steps above him one of his mates is fighting, then losing, his life - this translator, Upham, does not redeem himself much. Or really, at all. His paralyzing fear is believable, may be even authentic, but the man is a gross liability, and indirectly causes the death of at least one of his friends. There's nothing in the movie to tell us what we should do with Upham.

so what's the message here? War Is Hell, and no amount of tricksy mathematical rationalizing can conceal that? Except then how do you couple that with the late-90s huzzah for the Greatest Generation, for Spielberg's own interest in the Holocaust (which, ostensibly, this hellish war was ending)? As I watched, I thought: Thank god for the holocaust.
Not that I am glad it happened, at ALL. but because without that massively important moral and ethical underpinning, WWII is just another bloody fuck-up, like WWI. But that moral and ethical underpinning wasn't really the issue at the time, and the extent, the degree, of the Holocaust wasn't widely known. So what in the bloody hell were those poor, poor young men fighting for?

Saving Pvt Ryan wants us to feel like there is something noble we can take away from war and death and horror. But it fails, utterly, to provide this in anything more than a fakey, superficial way. Every act of kindness or mercy comes back to haunt and kill the men who commit them. the math is ultimately minus 6, plus 1 - this is fuzzy math of the worst kind.

And that opening scene, of the amphibious vehicles dropping their ramps on the beach - those poor, poor young men shot flat dead before they even take a step forward. This should teach us something, and the something isn't some vague lesson about Heroism and Bravery. Or even that War Is Hell but Sometimes Brings Out The Best in Us.

what i wonder, after watching this movie, is how anyone who believes in ANY kind of god or higher power, can believe that we are put on this earth to rain sharps of metal into each other's bodies; how can we believe that we are here to butcher and rip and shred and kill each other?

I wrote, in my conference paper, about the Mister Rogers' Neighborhood episodes in 1967-68 that deal with war in the neighborhood of make-believe. And Mr Rogers says, after that war is over, "Isn't Peace wonderful?" and it is. Peace is wonderful. and war is not noble, it is not great, it does not make men out of boys. what it does is make corpses out of boys.

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